Mind your language

Could designers’ obsession with typographical purity be oneo of the factors undermining English grammar? Simon Loxley pleads with designers to save the humble apostrophe from extinction

I HAVE never read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss’s highly successful polemic on the benefits and abuse of punctuation, because I recognise the potential seeds of such an obsession in myself, which it is kinder to others not to encourage.

But working as both a writer and a designer, punctuation is an inescapable fact of daily creative life, whether it be through implementing other people’s house styles or by trying to make my own sentences as comprehensible as possible. The design/words division of labour within a project can be difficult to cross, and the copy is sometimes fiercely guarded against the perceived semi- literate fumbling advances of the designer.

Although celebrated New Yorker Herb Lubalin famously used to alter his clients’ copy to fit his designs, such liberties frequently meet with a frosty reception. But, despite this, one element of the language itself is being subtly and, perhaps, irrevocably modified by design trends.

The possessive apostrophe has always enjoyed a chequered relationship with its users, largely because many people don’t know the rules. The monotonous sledgehammer teaching methods employed in the past to drive those rules into the heads of at least some schoolchildren have now been abandoned for more pupil-friendly initiatives, so it seems unlikely that the situation will improve. This pessimism is supported when you look in prominent places where the apostrophe should appear – only to find it is no longer there.

The possessive apostrophe is fast disappearing from public display – it is long gone from the logos of the businesses founded by Mr Debenham, Mr Boot and Mr Clark. But its abandonment has proliferated to the extent that I’ve noticed its absence on the facias of these high street stalwarts, too.

The reason seems clear: as contemporary design searches constantly for the streamlined, the minimised and the uncluttered, the possessive apostrophe is a visual irritant. In a typographical environment where even the mixture of upper and lower case characters in one word can be regarded as visually over-complex, what chance does this embryonic tadpole of a character have?

In Tesco, the apostrophe has even been removed from the in- store signage marking the display sections, as evidenced by ‘Boys toys’ and ‘Womens magazines’. Tesco is not alone in this, but why have both clients and designers decided to use grammatically incorrect English?

I’ll nail my colours to the mast here, and say that I like the possessive apostrophe. It clarifies the meaning of the written language, and clarification in a confusing world is always to be applauded. German uses an unapostrophied possessive ‘s’ attached to a noun with no ill effects, but it doesn’t also use an ‘s’ to create plurals.

Though its rules are tricky, the possessive apostrophe is, nonetheless, an endangered species that deserves our protection, and preservation isn’t always easy. But just because pandas are extremely reluctant to reproduce doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given every encouragement. This helpful little squiggle needs our support.

It’s not beyond the flair and ingenuity of designers to incorporate or denote it in imaginative ways that don’t interfere with the look they’re trying to achieve. Perhaps unintentionally, Bonham’s logo manages to do this. It has dispensed with the apostrophe, but the date of its founding, in its positioning, seems to take over the missing punctuation’s role. Green & Black’s even makes a positive asset of it.

Perhaps the humble apostrophe simply needs rebranding for the 21st century. Let’s think of it as a glyph, because that sounds far sexier. Now go out and use it.

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